Over the last ten years, we have seen the oyster market explode. We saw the rise of farmed oysters, the rapid openings of raw bars, and the expansion of the cocktail-size oyster market. The shellfish industry continues to surprise us with innovation and newcomers. But as it grows, it is also drawing more attention from the public sphere. As we look forward into 2019, here are the industry issues and trends we are thinking about and how they may affect the shellfish market.
At the most recent 2019 Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition, climate change was the hot topic. The ramifications of climate change for the shellfish industry are far-reaching. Ocean acidification and warming waters are affecting shellfish health and development. Shellfish are becoming more susceptible to disease and less resistant to invasive species. More frequent and extreme weather systems also increase the risk of losses. Stormwater runoff carrying excess nitrogen is causing more algal blooms harmful to shellfish.
Climate change is the new reality, and it will likely continue this year and into the near future. The consequences of climate change will definitely affect supply. Winter storms, wind, and other weather systems will limit farm access and production. There could be more frequent shellfish area closures due to heavy rain or algal blooms. Vibrio bacteria also thrives in warmer waters, which increases the risk of illnesses and related closures.
The warmer temperatures will likely induce shellfish to spawn sooner and potentially longer. This will affect their quality during the warmer months. The soft shell clam fishery continues to struggle with climate change, and its decline will limit supply. Connecticut, a large producer of hard shell clams, is seeing a decline in wild set seed. This will likely put future pressure on hard shell supply as well.
Regulations affecting catch and harvest
“They have no idea about the impact on the habitat and the fishery… And they’ve made a regulation that’s going to affect people dramatically in a negative way.” - Former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang
Public agencies and regulators are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, these regulations can hurt the industry. This past December, the New England Fisheries Management Council closed an area in Nantucket Shoals to protect aquatic habitat. The area, however, was also vital to the surf clam industry. The closure may cause surf clam harvest and production to drop by 50%. Surf clam is a New England staple — it’s the main ingredient in New England clam chowder.
Market prices on wild shellfish will likely increase with supply constraints. Product costs on surf clams have already gone up since the closure. These costs inevitably get passed along the supply chain to the consumer. Local, state, and federal regulations affect the industry's ability to produce and sell. If new rules apply in 2019, they may pose unforeseen supply challenges.
Oyster farmers are more prepared
Despite all the doom and gloom around climate change and regulations, oyster producers are readier than ever. Growers have had to deal with the effects of climate change and red tape for more than a few years now. Oyster hatcheries now breed seed to adapt to ocean acidification. Industry changes have forced growers to find smarter approaches, and they’re now more prepared for the unexpected.
If Mother Nature is kind, farmed supply will be relatively steady throughout the year. It's hard to predict unforeseen forces like new regulations or industry shifts. So if all stays the same, weather aside, we expect oysters to be fairly available moving through 2019.
Interests in something new
The raw bar market is starting to mature. Restaurants and diners are now looking to branch out of local varieties. Demand for Pacific oysters is growing on the East Coast. Interest in Northeast oysters is growing in Gulf regions. The Midwest is seeing a lift in shellfish growth from both coasts.
Demand for local seafood will remain strong, but this increasing interest for different and new will help farms reach markets outside their local regions. Smaller producers will have more opportunities to find their niche market. More restaurants are also adding oysters to their menus, so businesses will need to stay creative to entice their customers with their shellfish offerings.
Interests from abroad
Despite growing domestic demand, the international appetite for American shellfish is even greater. Asia and Europe are heavy seafood consumers. Domestic producers can command a higher price in these export markets. As of late, politics have definitely affected seafood exports going to China. The West Coast shellfish industry is feeling its effects. On the European front, the FDA is working with the EU to lift an import ban on American oysters.
The global political climate has been difficult to predict. If trade tariffs stay, shellfish exports, especially to China, will continue to struggle. As a result, Pacific shellfish availability could improve in the domestic market. If the FDA and the EU are able to lift the American oyster ban, this will be great news for producers. Peak shellfish consumption in the EU occurs during the winter when consumption is slow in the US.
More aquaculture, more public visibility
The growth of the shellfish industry has definitely not gone unnoticed. The oyster farm boom has drawn attention in many local communities concerned with their water access and waterfront sight lines. These NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) issues are miring the industry in lengthy and/or costly legal battles. These issues are leading to delays in permitting and sometimes, forcing farms to close up shop.
More consumers enjoying shellfish also means increased risk of shellfish-related foodborne illnesses. These illnesses receive more media attention, which can become greater public concern. Media outlets sometimes paint the industry as careless despite the industry’s preventative efforts.
The good news, however, is that many in the public, especially younger generations, have good faith in the industry. They understand that farmed shellfish and aquaculture are sustainable choices. Misinformation remains, but consumers are getting smarter by engaging with producers and suppliers. They are educating themselves and asking questions about their food sources.
This good faith has helped the industry weather difficult situations. There have been times past when the public has come to the industry’s defense. Our industry will continue to invest in public education and marketing with hope to continue this momentum of public support.
Overall, we expect 2019 to be a pretty steady year. But then again, that can all change in a second based on the whims of Mother Nature. It’s part of our jobs to deal with the unexpected, so we’ll figure it out as an industry. We have seen lots of change over the years, so this year may be no different. Keeps us on our toes. In to 2019 we go.